August 16, 2022

By Courtney Wise and Don Sapatkin

Good morning, MindSite News readers. In today’s MindSite News Daily, California’s legislature is urged to pass a bill that would greatly limit solitary confinement in prison by an editorial board…and a man who’s been there. A data-driven approach pioneered by a Canadian city has dramatically reduced chronic homelessness. And health system-drug company partnership to create a genetic database raises privacy concerns alongside hopes of cures. And more…

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“Solitary confinement is torture.” Will California’s state legislature vote to limit it?

The eyes of prison-reform advocates are turned toward California lawmakers as they consider Assembly Bill 2632, otherwise known as the California Mandela Act. If passed, the law will end solitary confinement for pregnant women, people under age 26 and older than 59, and people with certain disabilities or mental health disorders, while limiting its length and frequency for all other jailed populations. If they do so, California will join 14 other states that have restricted the practice. 

Via Twitter

Despite concerns from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation that the upfront cost of the bill is too high to implement; (officials claim more than $1 billion would have to be spent to increase programming space, exercise yards, and staffing), the human costs of not doing so may be greater. “Solitary confinement is torture. I know this because I spent more than a decade of my life held in isolation,” wrote Kevin McCarthy in an op-ed published in the San Francisco Chronicle. “I often tell people that I would have preferred a physical beating to being held in isolation. Bruises and cuts heal, but the wounds in my mind and soul are so deep that I do not believe I will ever fully recover.” 

Citing research that isolation is linked to greater recidivism and worsened physical and mental health, McCarthy argued that reducing solitary confinement could ultimately save taxpayers millions. The New York Times also shared a report from Berkeley Underground Scholars and Immigrant Defense Advocates that found severely restricting the practice could save Californians a minimum of $60 million per year.

-Courtney Wise

‘We put housing first’: How a small city in Canada all but ended chronic homelessness

Via Twitter

Fourteen months ago, a small city in southeastern Alberta announced that it was the first in Canada to “functionally end” chronic homelessness, meaning that there were no more than three people facing chronic homelessness for three consecutive months. Although the numbers have gone up and down a lot since then, the city of Medicine Hat, with a population of 63,000 and a 13% poverty rate, remains a national leader in reducing homelessness.

How did Medicine Hat do it? Officials worked to develop rapport with landlords, strengthen efforts to prevent housing loss and moved away from programs in favor of specific services to address vulnerable individuals’ needs. But the key to their success is the city’s data-driven, housing-first approach, reports Next City, a solutions-journalism site that focuses on urban areas.

“We put housing first,” explained Tracie Mutschler, head of a local nonprofit agency. “Ahead of mental health treatment, ahead of addictions… It is very difficult to do anything for a person with these issues unless they have permanent, stable housing.” Data collection is at the center. Medicine Hat’s Homelessness Management Information System includes the name of every person experiencing homelessness, part of a centralized process used to determine what each individual will need that is tracked in real time across agencies, including shelters, hospitals and police; every community-based organization participates. A 2019 progress report found that the city was saving up to 10 times what it cost to support people living on the street.

-Don Sapatkin

Hospital and drugmaker aim to build huge DNA database, exciting some and worrying others

One of the largest health systems in New York has begun seeking patients’ consent during routine blood draws to add their DNA to a database that could eventually contain genetic sequences for 1 million patients, or about 1 in 10 city residents, the New York Times reports. Around 80% of patients typically give permission for these kinds of projects.

When paired with health records, such datasets can help researchers search out rare mutations to find associations with conditions such as schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s that they hope to then use to develop cures. At scale, the Mount Sinai Health System’s effort is likely to cost tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars. So it has partnered with Regeneron, the pharma company that developed the first monoclonal antibody treatment for Covid-19, which will do the actual sequencing of anonymized samples.

Some scientists agree that genomic databases can drive great medical discoveries, but worry about the possibility of hacks or data leaks – and the potential that this information might be used in the future to deny insurance coverage to people with certain genotypes. Others urge broad participation in part to ensure that the database will be racially and ethnically representative. Mount Sinai’s New York patients are diverse, and 300,000 of them give blood every year.

In other news…

Was yesterday rough for you? Psychology Today offered up some tips to avoid a weekly case of “The Mondays.”

Countries with stricter and longer lockdowns had fewer Google searches for  “anxiety,” “depression,” “suicide” and “mental health,” the psychology and neuroscience news site PsyPost reports. While counterintuitive – at least in the U.S., which wasn’t one of the nine countries studied – the authors of the article in the Journal of Psychiatric Research speculated that collective feelings of well-being may have increased after certain pandemic lockdown policies were put in place.

As heatwaves scorch Europe, psychiatrists are urging people taking prescription antipsychotics and older antidepressants (tricyclics) to exercise caution because these medications may prevent the body from properly regulating its temperature. Dr. Wendy Burn told the BBC that people should not suddenly stop taking their medication, but rather seek medical advice from their physicians. In addition, heat-safe practices such as staying out of direct sunlight, drinking plenty of water, wearing loose-fitting, lightweight clothing, and avoiding strenuous physical activity and alcohol, can help.

If you or someone you know is in crisis or experiencing suicidal thoughts, call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline and connect in English or Spanish. If you’re a veteran press 1. If you’re deaf or hard of hearing dial 711, then 988. Services are free and available 24/7.

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Type of work:

Courtney WiseReporter

Courtney Wise Randolph is a native Detroiter and freelance writer. She is the host of COVID Diaries: Stories of Resilience, a 2020 project between WDET and Documenting Detroit which won an Edward R. Murrow...

Don SapatkinReporter

Don Sapatkin is an independent journalist who reports on science and health care. His primary focus for nearly two decades has been public health, especially policy, access to care, health disparities...